A Chance to Stop Sweatshops in a US Territory
July 25, 2006
If you’re the type of shopper who buys American-made products to keep our economy strong, support American workers, and make sure your dollars aren’t inadvertently propping up overseas sweatshops, there’s a bill under consideration in the House of Representatives right now that you should know about.
Known as the Marianas Human Dignity Act, the bill was introduced on June 7 by George Miller, D-Calif., and it concerns labor and immigration law on the Northern Mariana Islands, a western Pacific territory of the United States.
While the Marianas (which enjoy free trade status with the United States) are governed by most of this country’s federal laws, Miller’s labor and immigration bill addresses the two areas of federal law which – to disastrous consequences – specifically don’t apply there.
Under current law, the minimum wage on the Marianas is only $3.05 an hour. Such low wages, combined with easy immigration unmonitored by federal authorities, and lax labor laws, have turned the islands into a magnet for sweatshop operations. Luring low-wage workers from nearby Asian countries to sew garments that can then be labeled “Made in the USA,” garment factories can operate in the Marianas at a fraction of the cost – and free from the US labor protections – required of manufacturing operations on the US mainland.
According to the 2000 census, immigrant guest-workers now account for more than half the Marianas’ population, and with that influx of workers, sweatshop abuses run wild. A reporter for Ms. magazine visited the islands recently and returned with countless tales of indentured servitude – poor, Asian women working for months or years simply to pay back the recruitment fees that helped them find employment in the first place. While on the job, these women face unsafe working conditions, unpaid overtime, workdays as long as 20 hours, and even forced abortions, should they become pregnant while employed in a Marianas garment factory.
Lax immigration standards have led to human trafficking, a booming sex tourism industry on the islands, and numerous former garment workers forced into prostitution if they lose their jobs in the factories. What’s more, a 2001 Justice Department report asserted that easy immigration into the Marianas “is currently being exploited by transnational criminal organizations and possibly terrorist groups.” The report recommended addressing federal oversight of the islands “at the earliest possible opportunity in the interest of public safety and national security.”
Indeed, Congress did address the Marianas issue several times over the last decade, with the Senate throwing unanimous bi-partisan support behind bills like Miller’s, designed to shore up labor and immigration law, only to be thwarted by inaction in the House of Representatives. The House itself, in 2000, found enough co-sponsors for a Marianas labor and immigration bill to easily ensure passage of a floor vote, only to see the bill get stopped in committee.
How could legislation with so much support fail to get a proper vote year after year?
The answer lies with both the Republican leadership and with the now-disgraced lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. In the mid-1990s, Abramoff began working for representatives of the Marianas garment industry and local government, and for years he successfully convinced former House majority leader Tom DeLay and other high-ranking Republicans in the House to scuttle attempts to bring the Marianas under US law.
“They were running a protection racket,” says Miller. “DeLay and Abramoff protected the Marianas garment industry from congressional scrutiny and were rewarded handsomely for it with trips, lucrative contracts, campaign money and more. The most exploited women in the world, and the American legislative process paid the price.”
Today, with Abramoff in jail and DeLay indicted and headed for retirement, two major obstacles preventing passage of this legislation have been removed, and Miller’s bill has already picked up 25 co-sponsors. This legislation, if passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, has the chance not only to protect the rights of exploited workers in an American territory, but to give greater peace of mind to shoppers looking for labels that say “made in the USA.”